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Should Education Policies Promote Equity or Equality?

Updated on August 2, 2016
David Ortega profile image

Enthusiastic strategic manager skilled in budgeting, fundraising, grant writing and policy development. Master of Public Administration.

Fair and Equitable

The Nation’s education policy is often hotly debated. This has been the case in Iowa. The debate isn’t whether or not we should educate our citizens and strive to be one of the world’s best educated societies. Rather the question is, "What is fair and equitable?"

Defining Terms: Equity and Equality

Equity in education aims at fairness in the distribution of educational resources. “Equity is fairness; it is distribution based on need. Equality is distribution the same for all” (Erakovich, 2011).

Recent research suggests that educational policies need to promote equity instead of equality. “School communities should be willing to engage in school reforms that promote equity” (Welner & Burris, 2005, p. 90). Researchers argue that equity can result in educational excellence if the curriculum is not watered-down.

Equity goes beyond educational equality of opportunity. “Equity involves both opportunity as well as results” (Bensiman, Hao, Bustillos, 2003). While equality addresses access and educational opportunity, equity is concerned for the results and outcomes. Graduation rates are an outcome of education. Further, it is difficult to discuss the graduation rates without also taking into consideration the dropout rates.

Graduation and Dropout Rates

Graduation and dropout rates can be described in terms of outcome versus process measures.Graduation rates are an outcome measure of education while dropout rates can be recognized as a process measure of education. Process measures are sensitive to differences in the quality of education and can be considered direct measures of quality. Outcome measures can reflect all aspects of education, including those that are otherwise difficult to measure. Analyzing the graduation rate with a parallel consideration of the dropout rate is beneficial in measuring equity in education policy.

Graduation Rate
Dropout Rate
Outcome measure
Process measure
Direct measure of quality
Measures equity

Equitable Policies

Education policies that focus on an equitable distribution of educational resources may help address the disparity in graduation rates for ethnicities including Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in our national and local school communities. “The inadequate and inequitable opportunities offered to poor and minority youth today are perhaps the greatest challenge facing America’s schools and social institutions” (Levin, 2005, p. 6). Providing resources to the groups most in need may help to boost academic achievement. This can be applied at the state and local level.


The focus of this study is to provide policy makers with the background information necessary to become more familiar with the dropout rates in Iowa, and to describe potential solutions, predict probable ramifications, and identify preferred policy alternatives related to increasing graduation rates especially among Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Graduation rates need to be analyzed to look for disparities between Whites and other ethnic groups. This study identifies the social costs of dropout rates, factors influencing graduation rates, and proposes the need for additional research.

Iowa’s education policy may benefit from adapting elements from successful models being implemented in other states that lower dropout rates, boost graduation rates and improve academic achievement.

State of Iowa Success: High SAT Scores

Iowa is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in education. The standardized tests known as the Iowa Tests of Basic skills are administered nation-wide. Further, “Iowa students who take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) perform well with the highest composite scores in the nation for reading, math and writing.” (Iowa Department of Education, 2011). Iowa’s education policies strive for a high degree of academic achievement. What are some of the past and present education policies that might have contributed to Iowa’s success?

Grading Scale

Past policy efforts have placed pressure on Iowa to move from the traditional A-F grading scale to a Standards Based Reporting (SBR) system. According to Wilkerson, (2011), “The Waukee school district moved to this format 10 years ago…standards based education was embraced in most state and federal education policy with the goal of raising standards. It changed the measurement of success to academic achievement, rather than the completion of 12 years of education.”

Academic achievement is now the measurement of success in Iowa. However, Iowa’s education policy specifically addresses the graduation rate. Further, as previously discussed, it is necessary to address the dropout rates to understand the social costs especially among poor and minority students.

Standardizing and Measuring the Dropout Rate

In Iowa, the dropout rate is standardized so that it counts students who may graduate in 5 years. A dropout rate is not equivalent to subtracting the graduation rate from 100 percent because, for example, this method would count students who may not graduate in four years but remain in school and may graduate in five years. It would incorrectly report these students as dropouts (IDED, 2011).

Therefore, although these two terms cannot necessarily be used interchangeably, both can be measured when analyzing policies that attempt to boost academic achievement with a goal of educational equity.

Evaluating the State of Iowa Education Policy

The State of Iowa Education policy can be found in Chapter 256.37 of the Iowa Code:

It is the policy of the state of Iowa to provide an education system that prepares the children of this state to meet and exceed the technological, informational, and communications demands of our society… the current education system must be transformed to deliver the enriched educational program that the adults of the future will need to have to compete in tomorrow's world.

This section of the Iowa Code provides a general overview of the societal goals of the policy. While no specific efficiency goals are outlined in this particular section, the overall graduation rate has not met the State of Iowa policy goal for graduation rates set forth in subsequent sections of the Code.

Disparity in Graduation Rates

A gap exists in the State of Iowa graduation rates. A particular disparity exists between Whites and students of Black, Hispanic and Native American origin. Levin (2005) found that there is a relationship between high school graduation and reduction in criminal activity, as well as the likelihood of avoiding the need for public assistance. There is also a relationship between high school graduation and improved health, active civic participation and job opportunities (p. 6).

Can education policies that suggest multiple recommendations for incorporating both targeted and school wide interventions increase graduation rates among ethnicities?

Class of 2016

Southeast Polk High School Class of 2016
Southeast Polk High School Class of 2016

Significance of the Disparity

According to Iowa Code Chapter 256.37, “The education system must strive to reach the following goals: 1. All children in Iowa must start school ready to learn. 2. Iowa’s high school graduation rate must increase to at least ninety percent….” Although there are a total of 6 goals concerning the effectiveness of the policy, the focus here will be to address goal #2 with a particular emphasis on boosting the graduation rate among ethnicities.

Although data from the year 2010 shows that the graduation rate has increased to 88.8%, it still falls short of the goal to increase it to at least 90% (emphasis mine). More importantly, the data shows that the graduation rate for Blacks is 72.0%, Hispanics is 76.5%, Native Americans 73.3% and Asian 89.7%. For Whites, the rate is 90.4%. Is this disparity acceptable? It might be tempting to say that the policy goal for graduation rates has been met among Whites and there is very little more to achieve. However, it should be evident from this descriptive data that there is a significant difference for the graduation rates among ethnicities, especially Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans when compared either to Whites or the proposed policy goal for the statewide average.

Suggested Analysis of Graduation Rates

Empirical analysis can be conducted to see if graduation rates among White students are different for ethnicities. Analysis should be conducted to determine whether the difference is statistically significant for various ethnicities versus the policy goal. A z-score or confidence interval can be conducted on these populations. A statistically significant difference between Whites and ethnicities or between ethnicities and the policy goal suggests there is a relationship that should be researched further and to understand why.

If this problem is not addressed, there are certain moral, economic, civic, and social threats posed to our country. According to Levin (2005), “Inadequately educated children are more likely to be arrested, become pregnant, use drugs, experience violence and require public assistance” (p.6). The social costs can include $58 billion in health related losses, $1.4 billion related to crime, and $50 billion lost in federal and state income taxes (p. 2). These costs are related to the effects of high school dropouts.

Policy Considerations

MacIver & Groginsky (2011) found that, “Prior attendance levels and academic readiness of the entering 9th-grade class largely determine high school graduation rates” (p. 16). They show that a collaborative effort from external stakeholders is key in shaping state policy.

Following their steps for implementation, the dropout rate significantly decreased in the state of Colorado. They contend that their approach should be used as a model for other states. Regarding minorities, Levin (2005) found that, “Young white children are more “school-ready” than their Black peers” and suggest that policies should consider a child’s exposure to reading, books, computers and supervised play before he or she starts school (p. 8).

Quasi-Experimental Study of Graduation Rates

Porowski & Passa (2011) conducted a quasi-experimental study on the effects of communities in schools on high school dropout and graduation rates. They found that, “initiatives that aim to prevent student dropout by encouraging collaboration between schools and their surrounding communities can help keep students engaged in school and on track to graduation (p. 35). What are some other influences on graduation rates?

Howell et. al. (2002) note that, “A consensus has emerged that students attending private schools enjoy significantly higher graduation rates” (p. 192). These researchers also studied the effects of school vouchers on student tests scores in New York, New York, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, DC and found that after 2 years, “African Americans who switched from public to private school gained, relative to their public-school peers, an average of 6.3 National Percentile Ranking on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills” (p. 191). This is a significant finding and should be considered when formulating education policy.

Reading Skills

Much has been written about the importance of boosting reading skills as a part of education policy. Cormack (2011) suggests, “In the case of reading policy, this should include exemplary documentation of classroom practices and, especially, consideration of the ways in which particular practices can be related to the socio-historical contexts in which they were placed, which are recognizable to both practitioners and researchers” (p. 146). Incorporating reading into the policy is important both in the formulation and implementation (administrative) stages.

Policy Recommendations

Policymakers have used expenditure and cost-benefit types of analysis to make decisions regarding state education policy. They include, (1) average expenditure studies, (2) resource cost studies, and (3) cost function studies (Taylor, Baker &Vedlitz, 2005). Yet the conclusions reached by these studies are varied and at times inconclusive. Researchers rationalize that there is not a consensus of which model to use for measuring the costs of adequate education and therefore, “policy response could be to conduct several studies with different methods…. Policymakers and the courts should evaluate educational adequacy from a variety of perspectives…” (Taylor, Baker & Vedlitz, p. 22). A cost-benefit approach alone will not address the graduation rate disparity found among ethnicities in order to make Iowa’s educational system more equitable.

6 Key Policy Areas

Iowa should formulate policies that (1) emphasize reading, (2) focus on academic readiness, (3) enhance the use of technology and computers, (4) promotes supervised play, (5) encourages vouchers, and (6) incorporates collaboration among key stakeholders. With Levin, we can conclude, “There is no single policy focus likely, by itself, to make the nation equitable” (Levin, 2005). This is true for Iowa’s education policy.

Conclusion: Iowa's Education Policies Should be More Equitable

In Iowa, it is best to keep striving for making its educational system more equitable. Policies should investigate and address multi-faceted influences that affect dropout rates, graduation rates and academic achievement. They should recognize the causal relationships between a child’s health and better school attendance. Policies should also recognize the effects of external influences so as not to focus on schools alone. “Parents who earn more may accumulate savings which can be used to send children to college and inspire them to do so” (Levin, p. 12). It can be seen that adequate education influences earnings and higher earnings influence adequate education “An up-front investment in education, even one that costs billions of dollars, can prevent much higher expenditures later on” (Levin, p. 7). Investments should be made to address the graduation rate disparity among ethnicities in Iowa. This will enhance Iowa’s ability to be fair and equitable in its education policies.


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Bergstrom, Y. (2009). The universal right to education: freedom, equality and fraternity. Springer Science and Business Media (29) 167–182.

Cormack, P. (2011). Reading pedagogy, 'Evidence' and education policy: learning from history?. Australian Educational Researcher, 38(2), 133-148. doi:10.1007/s13384-011-0020-1

Erakovich, R. (2011). Week 2 discussion. Retrieved from

Howell, W. G., Wolf, P. J., Campbell, D.E., & Peterson, P.E., (2002). School vouchers and academic performance: results from three randomized field trials.Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 21(2): 191-217.

Iowa Department of Education. (2011). Iowa SAT scores top the nation. Retrieved from:

Iowa Department of Education. Iowa Code Chapter 256. (2011). Retrieved from:

Iowa Department of Education (2011). Iowa’s graduation rate increases. Retrieved from:

Levin (2005). The social costs of inadequate education. The Campaign for Educational Equity. Columbia University. New York. 1-22.

MacIver, M. A., & Groginsky, S. (2011). Working Statewide to Boost Graduation Rates. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(5), 16-20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Porowski, A. & Passa, A. (2011). The effect of communities in schools on high school dropout and graduation rates: Results from a multiyear, school-level quasi-experimental study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 16(1), 24-37.

Schütz, G., Ursprung, H. W., & Woessmann, L. (2005). Education policy and equality of opportunity. The Institute for the Study of Labor. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1906

Taylor, L. L., Baker, B.D., & Vedlitz, A. (2005). Measuring educational adequacy in public schools. Bush School of Government and Public Service.BushSchool Working Paper #580.

Welner, K. G., & Burris, C. C. (2005). Alternative approaches to the politics of detracking. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 90–99.

Wilkerson, D. (2011). Time to stop hoping and start acting.

Policy Poll

Should there be equity or equality in education?

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